Sunday, November 23, 2008

Alaska Highways

Roads are something we tend to take for granted here in the “lower 48”. We have such an elaborate labyrinth of highways and byways, we never have any reason to question the fact that we can get almost anywhere by road travel. Our writhing asphalt jungle is woven into the fabric of our culture. While many devout denizens of our concrete canyons embrace the premise of modern convenience and so called progress offered by all this sprawling development, I can’t help but feel as though we are almost choked by it. Resisting the temptation to digress here, my point is simply that a vacation road trip on Alaska’s highways can be a very rewarding of experience.

When it comes to construction, we have it easy down here. Of course in the lower 48 we don’t have permafrost to consider. Or a range of annual temperature change of up to 160 F or more depending on exactly where you are. Added to these climatic difficulties are muskeg swamps, dense forests, isolation, mountain passes, and glacial flows. During our Alaska trip last August, we had the opportunity to journey by motor coach across some of the 49th State’s most interesting routes. Some of them paved, and some not. Highways having adventuresome and colorful history, and which were nothing less than monumental construction projects. This was quite a contrast to the previous seven days spent mostly aboard cruise ship.

We disembarked our ship in Whittier on Prince William Sound, and crossed over to Valdez by passenger catamaran where we began our motor tour. The first leg of our journey took us over the Richardson Highway, Alaska Route 4. This road runs from Valdez to Fairbanks over a total distance of 368 miles, but we didn’t plan to do the entire route. Our destination was a lodge near Copper Center on the outskirts of Wrangell St. Elias National Park. This route dates back to the days of pack trails and the Klondike gold rush of the 1800s. It was called the Valdez Trail then. The Alaska Road Commission began improving the trail into a wagon road beginning in 1910. During that time there was a series of roadhouses about 20 to 25 miles apart to take in travelers. Many modern roadhouses endure today. On a side note; I just finished a fascinating book chronicling the story of Frank Glaser, a man who among many other pursuits, owned one of those roadhouses during the early 1920s. It’s titled “Alaska’s Wolf Man” by Jim Rearden. A great read for its historical value including adventures along the Valdez Trail. The route roughly follows along the Lowe River in Keystone Canyon, and then climbs up to Thompson Pass, 2600 feet at the summit. Sights along the way, weather permitting, include glacial fed waterfalls, forests, sweeping vistas, the trans-Alaska pipeline, a mountain top glacier, and if you’re lucky, wildlife.

After our lodge stay our next destination was Denali National Park. The route we used would take us north on highway 4 up to Paxon, AK where we would then turn west onto Denali Highway, Alaska Route 8. Open to conventional vehicular travel only about 5 months of the year between mid-May to early October, the route is mostly unpaved even today. Completed in 1957 it was much more heavily traveled then as the principle route to Denali. But after the paved Route 3, the Parks Highway, was completed in 1971 from Anchorage to Fairbanks, this route became more of a secondary road. This is the route that appeals more to the nature and wilderness lovers. Very few facilities or services are to be found along the 135 mile stretch of road, but the pristine scenery to be enjoyed is a wonder to behold. Sights include the Maclaren River, Maclaren Glacier, scores of glacial fed streams and rivers, taiga and tundra, and an expansive vista of the Alaska Range. Truly the “road less traveled”, this is as close to a true wilderness experience you can ever get while riding in a motor vehicle. Below are links to lots of pictures both from myself and by brother-in-law Dave.

Click here to view my Prince William Sound/Richardson Highway photoset on flickr
Click here to view my Copper Center/Wrangell photoset on flickr
Click here to view my Denali Highway photoset on flickr
Click here to view Dave's Richardson highway pictures (
Click here to view Dave's Denali highway pictures (

No comments: